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The Cynosure

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The text is taken from my copy of the fourth edition, 1842. This version of Political Justice, originally published in 1793, is based on the corrected third edition, published in 1798.




Liable to most of the preceding objections -- to further objections peculiar to itself. -- Responsibility considered. -- Maxim, that the king can do no wrong. -- Functions of a limited monarch. -- Impossibility of maintaining the neutrality required. -- On the dismission of ministers. -- Responsibilty of ministers. -- Appointment of ministers, its importance. -- its difficulties. -- Recapitulation. -- Strength and weakness of the human species.

I proceed to consider monarchy, not as it exists in countries where it is unlimited and despotic, but, as in certain instances it has appeared, a branch merely of the general constitution.

Here it is only necessary to recollect the objections which applied to it in its unqualified state, in order to perceive that they bear upon it, with the same explicitness, if not with equal force, under every possible modification. Still the government is founded in falsehood, affirming that a certain individual is eminently qualified for an important situation, whose qualifications are perhaps scarcely superior to those of the meanest member of the community. Still the government is founded in injustice, because it raises one man, for a permanent duration, over the heads of the rest of the community, not for any moral recommendation he possesses, but arbitrarily and by accident. Still it reads a constant and powerful lesson of immorality to the people at large, exhibiting pomp and splendour and magnificence, instead of virtue, as the index to general veneration and esteem. The individual is, not less than in the most absolute monarchy, unfitted by his education to become either respectable or useful. He is unjustly and cruelly placed in a situation that engenders ignorance, weakness and presumption, after having been stripped, in his infancy, of all the energies that should defend him against their inroads. Finally, his existence implies that of a train of courtiers, and a series of intrigue, of servility, secret influence, capricious partialities and pecuniary corruption. So true is the observation of Montesquieu, that "we must not expect, under a monarchy, to find the people virtuous1".

But, if we consider the question more narrowly, we shall perhaps find that limited monarchy has other absurdities and vices which are peculiarly its own. In an absolute sovereignty, the king may, if he please, be his own minister; but, in a limited one, a ministry and a cabinet are essential parts of the constitution. In an absolute sovereignty, princes are acknowledged to be responsible only to God; but, in a limited one, there is a responsibility of a very different nature. In a limited monarchy, there are checks, one branch of the government counteracting the excesses of another, and a check without responsibility is the most flagrant contradiction.

There is no subject that deserves to be more maturely considered, than this of responsibility. To be responsible, is to be liable to be called into an open judicature, where the accuser and the defendant produce their allegations and evidence on equal terms. Every thing short of this, is mockery. Every thing that would give, to either party, any other influence, than that of truth and virtue, is subversive of the great ends of justice. He that is arraigned of any crime, must descend, a private individual, to the level plain of justice. If he can bias the sentiments of his judges by his possession of power, or by any compromise previous to his resignation, or by the mere sympathy excited in his successors, who will not be severe in their censures, lest they should be treated with severity in return, he cannot truly be said to be responsible. From the honest insolence of despotism we may perhaps promise ourselves better effects, than from the hypocritical disclaimers of a limited government. Nothing can be more pernicous than falsehood, and no falsehood can be more palpable, than that which pretends to put a weapon into the hands of the general interest, which constantly proves blunt and powerless in the very act to strike.

It was a confused feeling of these truths, that introduced into limited monarchies the principle "that the king can do no wrong." Observe the peculiar consistency of this proceeding. Consider what a specimen it affords of plain dealing, frankness and ingenuous sincerity. An individual is first appointed, and endowed with the most momentous prerogatives; and then it is pretended that, not he, but other men, are answerable for the abuse of these prerogatives. This presence may appear tolerable to men bred among the fictions of law, but justice, truth and virtue, revolt from it with indignation.

Having first invented this fiction, it becomes the business of such constitutions, as nearly as possible, to realize it. A ministry must be regularly formed; they must concert together; and the measures they execute must originate in their own discretion. The king must be reduced, as nearly as possible, to a cypher. So far as he fails to be completely so, the constitution must be imperfect.

What sort of figure is it that this miserable wretch exhibits in the face of the world? Everything is, with great parade, transacted in his name. He assumes all the inflated and oriental style which has been already described 2, and which indeed was, upon that occasion, transcribed from the practice of a limited monarchy. We find him like Pharaoh's frogs, "in our houses, and upon our beds, in our ovens, and our kneading troughs."

Now observe the man himself to whom all this importance is annexed. To be idle is the abstract of his duties. He is paid an immense revenue only to hunt and to eat, to wear a scarlet robe and a crown. He may not choose any one of his measures. He must listen, with docility, to the consultations of his ministers, and sanction, with a ready assent, whatever they determine. He must not hear any other advisers; for they are his known and constitutional counsellors. He must not express to any man his opinion; for that would be a sinister and unconstitutional interference. To be absolutely perfect, he must have no opinion, but be the vacant and colourless mirror by which theirs is reflected. He speaks; for they have taught him what he should say: he affixes his signature; for they inform him that it is necessary and proper.

A limited monarchy, in the articles we have described, might be executed with great facility and applause if a king were, what such a constitution endeavours to render him, a mere puppet regulated by pulleys and wires. But it is among the most egregious and palpable of all political mistakes to imagine that we can reduce a human being to this neutrality and torpor. He will not exert any useful and true activity, but he will be far from passive. The more he is excluded from that energy that characterizes wisdom and virtue, the more depraved and unreasonable will he be in his caprices. Is any promotion vacant, and do we expect that he will never think of bestowing it on a favourite, or of proving, by an occasional election of his own, that he really exists? This promotion may happen to be of the utmost importance to the public welfare; or, if not -- every promotion unmeritedly given, is pernicious to national virtue, and an upright minister will refuse to assent to it. A king does not fail to hear his power and prerogatives extolled, and he will, no doubt, at some time, wish to essay their reality in an unprovoked war against a foreign nation, or against his own citizens.

To suppose that a king and his ministers should, through a period of years, agree in their genuine sentiments, upon every public topic, is what human nature, in no degree, authorizes. This is to attribute to the king talents equal to those of the most enlightened statesmen of his age, or at least to imagine him capable of understanding all their projects, and comprehending all their views. It is to to suppose him unspoiled by education, undebauched by rank, and with a mind disposed to receive the impartial lessons of truth.

"But if they disagree, the king can choose other ministers." We shall presently have occasion to consider this prerogative in a general view; let us for the present examine it, in its application to the differences that may occur, between the sovereign and his servants. It is an engine for ever suspended over the heads of the latter, to persuade them to depart from the singleness of their integrity. The compliance that the king demands from them is perhaps, at first, but small; and the minister, strongly pressed, thinks it better to sacrifice his opinion, in this inferior point, than to sacrifice his office. One compliance of this sort leads on to another, and he that began, perhaps only with the preference of an unworthy candidate for distinction, ends with the most atrocious political guilt. The more we consider this point, the greater will its magnitude appear. It will rarely happen but that the minister will be more dependent for his existence on the king than the king upon his minister. When it is otherwise, there will be a mutual compromise, and both in turn will part with everything that is firm, generous, independent and honourable in man.

And, in the meantime, what becomes of responsibility? The measures are mixed and confounded as to their source, beyond the power of human ingenuity to unravel. Responsibility is, in reality, impossible. "Far otherwise," cries the advocate of monarchical government: "it is true that the measures are partly those of the king, and partly those of the minister, but the minister is responsible for all." Where is the justice of that? It were better to leave guilt wholly without censure than to condemn a man for crimes of which he is innocent. In this case the grand criminal escapes with impunity, and the severity of the law falls wholly upon his coadjutors. The coadjutors receive that treatment which constitutes the essence of all bad policy: punishment is profusely menaced against them, and antidote is wholly forgotten. They are propelled to vice by irresistible temptations, the love of power, and the desire to retain it; and then censured with a rigour altogether disproportioned to their fault. The vital principle of the society, is tainted with injustice; and the same neglect of equity, and partial respect of persons, will extend itself over the whole.

I proceed to consider that prerogative in limited monarchy which, whatever others may be given or denied, is inseparable from its substance, the prerogative of the king to nominate to public offices. If anything be of importance, surely this must be of importance, that such a nomination be made with wisdom and integrity, that the fittest persons be appointed to the highest trusts the state has to confer, that an honest and generous ambition be cherished, and that men who shall most ardently qualify themselves for the care of the public welfare, be secure of having the largest share in its superintendence.

This nomination is a most arduous task, and requires the wariest circumspection. It falls, more accurately than any other affair of political society, within the line of a pure, undefinable discretion. In other cases the path of rectitude seems visible and distinct. Justice in the contests of individuals, justice in questions of peace and war, justice in the establishment of maxims and judicature, will not perhaps obstinately withdraw itself from the research of an impartial and judicious enquirer. But to observe the various portions of capacity scattered through a nation, and minutely to weigh the qualifications of multiplied candidates, must, after all our accuracy, be committed to some degree of uncertainty.

The first difficulty that occurs, is to discover those whom genius and ability have made, in the best sense, candidates for the office. Ability is not always intrusive; talents are often to be found in the remoteness of a village, or the obscurity of a garret. And, though self-consciousness and self-possession are, to a certain degree, the attributes of genius, yet there are many things beside false modesty, that may teach its possessor to shun the air of a court.

Of all men a king is least qualified to penetrate these recesses, and discover merit in its hiding place. Encumbered with forms, he cannot mix at large in the society of his species. He is too much engrossed with the semblance of business, or a succession of amusements, to have leisure for such observations, as should afford a just estimate of men's characters. In reality, the task is too mighty for any individual, and the benefit can only be secured through the mode of election.

Other disadvantages, attendant on this prerogative of choosing his own ministers, it is needless to enumerate. If enough have not been already said, to explain the character of a monarch, as growing out of the functions with which he is invested, a laboured repetition in this place would be both tedious and useless. If there be any dependence to be placed upon the operation of moral causes, a king will, in almost every instance, be found among the most undiscriminating, the most deceived, the least informed, and the least heroically disinterested of mankind.

Such then is the genuine and uncontrovertible scene of a mixed monarchy. An individual placed at the summit of the edifice, the centre and the fountain of honour, and who is neutral, or must seem neutral, in the current transactions of his government. This is the first lesson of honour, virtue and truth, which mixed monarchy reads to its subjects. Next to the king come his administration, and the tribe of courtiers; men driven by a fatal necessity, to be corrupt, intriguing and venal; selected for their trust by the most ignorant and ill formed inhabitant of the realm; made solely accountable for measures of which they cannot solely be the authors; threatened, if dishonest, with the vengeance of an injured people; and, if honest, with the surer vengeance of their sovereign's displeasure. The rest of the nation, the subjects at large --

Was ever name so fraught with degradation and meanness as this of subjects? I am, it seems, by the very place of my birth, become a subject. A subject I know I ought to be to the laws of justice; a subject I know I am, to the circumstances and emergencies under which I am placed. But to be the subject of an individual, of a being with the same form, and the same imperfections as myself; how much must the human mind be degraded, how much must its grandeur and independence be emasculated, before I can learn to think of this with patience, with indifference, nay, as some men do, with pride and exultation? Such is the idol that monarchy worships, in lieu of the divinity of truth, and the sacred obligation of public good. It is of little consequence whether we vow fidelity to the king and the nation, or to the nation and the king, so long as the king intrudes himself to tarnish and undermine the true simplicity, the altar of virtue.

Are mere names beneath our notice, and will they produce no sinister influence upon the mind? May we bend the knee before the shrine of vanity and folly without injury? Far otherwise. Mind had its beginning in sensation, and it depends upon words and symbols for the progress of its associations. The truly good man must not only have a heart resolved, but a front erect. We cannot practise abjection, hypocrisy and meanness, without becoming degraded in other men's eyes and in our own. We cannot "bow the head in the temple of Rimmon," without in some degree apostatising from the divinity of truth. He that calls a king a man will perpetually hear from his own mouth the lesson, that he is unfit for the trust reposed in him: he that calls him by any sublimer appellation is hastening fast into the grossest and most dangerous errors.

But perhaps "mankind are so weak and imbecile that it is in vain to expect, from the change of their institutions, the improvement of their character." Who made them weak and imbecile? Previously to human institutions and human society, they had certainly none of this defect. Man, considered in himself, is merely a being capable of impression, a recipient of perceptions. What is there in this abstract character that precludes him from advancement? We have a faint discovery in individuals at present of what our nature is capable: why should individuals be fit for so much, and the species for nothing? Is there anything in the structure of the globe that forbids us to be virtuous? If no, if nearly all our impressions of right and wrong flow from our intercourse with each other, why may not that intercourse be susceptible of modification and amendment? It is the most cowardly of all systems that would represent the discovery of truth as useless, and teach us that, when discovered, it is our wisdom to leave the mass of our species in error.

There is, in reality, little room for scepticism respecting the omnipotence of truth. Truth is the pebble in the lake; and, however slowly, in the present case, the circles succeed each other, they will infallibly go on, till they overspread the surface. No order of mankind will for ever remain ignorant of the principles of justice, equality and public good. No sooner will they understand them, than they will perceive the coincidence of virtue and public good with private interest: nor will any erroneous establishment be able effectually to support itself against general opinion. In this contest sophistry will vanish, and mischievous institutions sink quietly into neglect. Truth will bring down all her forces, mankind will be her army, and oppression, injustice, monarchy and vice, will tumble into a common ruin.



1"Il n'est pas rrare qu'il y ait des princes vertueux; mais il est tres difficile dans une monarchie que le peuple le soit." Esprit des Loix, Liv. III, Chap. v.
1Book V, Chap. VI, p. 50*
To Book V, Chapter IX.
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